Don't Do Your Research: "East Coast Keto"
The perils of non-professionalism.
Self-promotion is part of independent publication; for this reason, I’ll be sharing previous articles here and there. As always, if you enjoy my writing, consider recommending this newsletter to a friend. It’s a considerable help.
I first published this piece one year ago, and stand by its core arguments: one, selling exploitative health and diet advice, particularly without professional expertise, is bad, period; two, in the Algorithmic Era, differentiating fact from fiction proves harder than ever and represents a serious problem.
A further point I didn’t get into then, but I’ll add now: After another record-crushing year of extreme temperatures, diets like keto, carnivore, et al. merit additional criticism, given the impact of animal agriculture on the environment.
On a personal note, however: If the ketogenic diet, or the South Beach diet, or the raw food diet, or the cotton ball diet work for you, have at it. I’m not here to judge. -JRS
Bear with me for a moment, we need to get through the following paragraphs, a kind of choir of dietary guidelines.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – which represents over one-hundred thousand credentialed professionals – advises that you limit your intake of saturated fat and avoid butter or lard. The American Heart Association recommends that you limit animal fats and restrict saturated fat to about 5% of total calories. Similarly, the Heart and Stroke Foundation suggests that you prioritize plant-based protein and stick to lower-fat dairy and lean meat. That melody continues in directives from the American Cancer Society, the Canadian Cancer Society, and Cancer Research UK, all of which recommend a diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and that limits or avoids red and processed meats.
Striking up a similar tune are the official dietary guidelines of Benin, Japan, Sweden, Mexico, Portugal, Costa Rica and New Zealand – all selected at random from the United Nations website – which emphasize fruits, vegetables and whole grains and restrict saturated fat, particularly from animal sources.
You get the point. And you could follow this advice, from governmental organizations and nonprofits, the results of ongoing research and professional expertise.
Or you could read East Coast Keto.
Bobbi Pike is a visual artist with a background in sales who lives in Newfoundland and Labrador. As her website makes clear, she has no training, education or credentials in nutrition, health or food science; Pike’s LinkedIn profile describes her as a “Keto Coach/Motivator,” while her Instagram reads “Keto Coach/Guru.” She has published two cookbooks with Breakwater Books, East Coast Keto and East Coast Keto 2, and sells about twenty diet consultation packages on her website, ranging in price from $29 to $349.
Taking that first cookbook as the measure of Pike’s nutritional advice, you discover a diet out of key with the above chorus of recommendations. East Coast Keto suggests that you limit fruits, many vegetables and whole grains, and not only emphasize, but prioritize full-fat dairy and animal products. Eating this way, the cookbook argues, will not only help you lose weight, but also improve mental clarity and quality of sleep, stabilize your appetite, and “decrease fluctuations in your hormones.” The foundation for these claims: the author’s personal opinion and experience.
To reinforce its case, East Coast Keto leans heavily on the lexicon of wellness and diet marketing. For example, it repeatedly refers to “chemicals” and “toxins,” but does not define them – in fact, it claims that, when you convert to the ketogenic diet, your body flushes out “toxins and other items that have been stored over the years.” While medical detoxification is a thing, doing so by way of diet is not – it’s a dubious, pseudo-medical maneuver aimed at selling you things. Same goes for the concept of “eating clean,” which East Coast Keto repeatedly references: a marketing gimmick that even business-friendly Forbes has called out.
Confusingly, for all its claims about toxins and chemicals, East Coast Keto makes no reference to food-related carcinogens – worse, it recommends a diet that is full of them. The word “bacon” appears over ninety-nine times in the book (the search function of the e-reader app tops out at ninety-nine); meanwhile, the World Health Organization classifies processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, i.e. regular consumption causes cancer. They classify red meat as Group 2A, or probably carcinogenic. Moreover, cooking fatty cuts of meat on a grill or in a pan over high heat creates carcinogenic compounds – which makes East Coast Keto’s claim that bacon and other animal fats are “good” problematic, at best.
More broadly – and somewhat surprisingly – the cookbook argues that “keto is not a diet.” This amounts to an act of bait-and-switch that, as noted by writer Virginia Sole-Smith, the diet platform Noom employs to considerable success. The question is, in an era of (rightful) diet skepticism, how do you make money with diets? The answer: Argue that your restrictive eating regime is not, in fact, a restrictive eating regime – it’s a lifestyle, or a way of thinking differently about food.
No. It’s a diet. And research shows that diets in general do not have a positive impact on health over the long term, and that the ketogenic diet in particular ranks no better than any other when it comes to weight loss. Moreover, strict nutritional regimes like keto could cause social isolation – as if you need any more of that now – and lead to disordered eating. You can see why philosopher Kate Manne calls out diet culture as both unhealthy and immoral.
This is the world we live in now, the algorithmic gold rush. Without professional qualifications, you can convert a Facebook following into a book deal, into consultation packages that cost more than the average person spends on groceries in a month. You can spin people’s concerns about body image, about their health and well-being, into profit – simply append a public disclaimer. Remind people to do their research.
But that’s precisely the problem, where “do your research” lands us. In the end, we’re at the mercy of an algorithmic gamble, a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure. The page numbers you pick may present expert opinion and professional consensus – or point you in the opposite direction, into thinking that the earth is flat, or that your country is run by Satan-worshiping pedophiles, or that you can prevent COVID-19 with horse de-worming paste, or cleanse your genitals with steam.
Or that an extreme diet, one that comes with considerable risks and at great expense, can liberate you from how you feel about your body, or free you from chronic illness. You can find your guru, and the algorithm will nod in affirmation, reward you with YouTube videos and podcasts, search results and social media profiles, exploiting your ignorance and insecurities, increasingly confirming the bias.
No. Don’t do your research – at least, not in that sense. Instead, trust in the research, in the long-established and ongoing process of cumulative effort we call science. Trust the professionals, plural, those with education and experience, credentials and qualifications – those interested not in your wallet, but your well-being.
And remember, to quote East Coast Keto: “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”